Nikki Bond, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health

A discussion on rent arrears and mental health

Last week we launched our new report exploring the relationship between mental health problems and rent arrears in social housing. To explore the findings, and how they could be implemented, we brought together thirty-one key figures in the social housing and mental health sectors for a discussion on rent arrears and mental health over breakfast.

Why are people experiencing mental health problems more likely to be in rent arrears?

Our new research finds that people with mental health problems are one and a half times as likely to report problems paying for housing.  

Most people would find falling behind on the rent worrying. But for a person experiencing a mental health problem, which might affect their motivation and ability to problem solve, as well as causing feelings of hopelessness, the situation can cause absolute despair. People who may already be overwhelmed by their mental state, can feel powerless to resolve their situation alone, fearful of escalating arrears and ultimately homelessness. These feelings can then drive disengagement from the very services that may be able to assist.

We were pleased to be joined at the event by a member of our Research Community, Debbie, who shared her experience of mental health problems and rent arrears, and the difference it made receiving support and understanding from her social housing provider.

Common challenges

As attendees reflected on our findings, the drive to support people experiencing mental health problems and rent arrears among social housing providers was apparent. There were common challenges identified which included:

  • Financial pressures upon social housing providers to function efficiently, specifically in the collection of rents, in order to grow capacity to build more homes, balancing the responsibility towards existing and future tenants.
  • Requirements under new data protection legislation, GDPR, and the challenge of protecting sensitive data whilst providing targeted support to tenants
  • Embracing technology without creating barriers and reducing face-to-face services.

The roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) and limited access to Alternative Payment Arrangements (APAs) was another common challenge faced by representatives around the table. It was acknowledged that systemic problems with the benefit system were driving escalating arrears. Our recommendations to government of automatically offering APAs to certain groups in receipt of disability-related benefits, and changes to time limits for backdated housing element of UC were well received. Some in the room felt we should go further and reinstate automatic payment to housing providers in all cases.

Building on existing good work in the sector

Social landlords are already doing good work supporting residents to sustain their tenancies.  Even where arrears escalate, tenants are protected by the Pre-action Arrears Protocol. However, when people are experiencing mental health problems, engaging with this support can be very difficult – and sadly, sometimes help arrives too late for a tenancy to be saved. After discussing the research about the problems people face at the moment, focus turned to solutions.

Our research identified gaps in existing legislation, government policy and social housing processes which need to be addressed to ensure appropriate support is offered to people experiencing mental health problems and rent arrears. As well as making recommendations, we produced a very practical Best Practice Checklist for social landlords, which is informed by the experiences of members of our Research Community. At the event discussion particularly focused on alternative ways to communicate with tenants to improve early engagement and ensure messages of support are getting through, these included:

  • Contacting tenants via their preferred method of communication – and not assuming people are unwilling to engage simply because they do not respond to letters or calls.
  • Adapting correspondence so that messages of support to maintain tenancies are the first thing people see when opening letters, rather than warnings of evictions.

There was a real appetite for collaborative working within the sector, sharing best practice and testing out what works and what doesn’t. Some providers shared examples of customer profiling and targeted support, others attendees advocated for a more universal approach aimed at all tenants and highlighting the support services available.

Beginning of the journey

Although this discussion on rent arrears and mental health was enormously encouraging, we know launching the report is only the beginning of the journey. The hard work starts here. Now we need to test our recommendations, see what does and doesn’t work, and then embed this in practice. What was encouraging was the enthusiasm in the room at a very senior level for making changes and improving support to tenants with mental health problems.